BOCA RATON, Fla. -- After another 90-minute effort for the U.S. national team on Tuesday night, Jermaine Jones said that he’s known coach Jurgen Klinsmann “for a long time” and that the manager has “sometimes crazy ideas.”
Crazy? Perhaps. Creative? Certainly. Klinsmann never has been a slave to convention and has a well-known affinity for experimentation. He’ll call in unheralded players and leave big names behind. He’ll tinker with tactics and formations -- he even did so on the eve of the World Cup -- and is comfortable deploying players in new positions. This week, Jones was the experimental subject. The workhorse midfielder, whose robust performances were so critical to the Americans’ advancement at the World Cup, is 32 years old. He remains a vital U.S. cog, but his game likely will evolve over the next four years. So with that in mind, Klinsmann suggested to Jones that he give center back a try against Honduras here at FAU Stadium. He’d done it a few times at the club level, so why not for his country?
“I’m open always to new ideas,” Jones said following the 1-1 draw. “Yeah, he asked me, and I was at first a little bit, ‘Mhmmm, okay…’ But once I have no problem with that and the position is okay, and maybe I have some fun in the next years.”
Jones began the game alongside Matt Besler, a former MLS Defender of the Year who started all four matches in Brazil. He’s well regarded for his discipline and his ability to read the game. He has also spent the past few years partnering at Sporting Kansas City with Aurélien Collin, who tends to take chances.
Throughout a first half in which the U.S. outplayed Honduras, Jones and Besler looked comfortable and composed. Jones even had a couple of runs through midfield and in the 41st minute, he volleyed clear a dangerous pass headed for forward Alberth Elis. The visitors failed to put a shot on goal during the first 45 minutes.
The second half was a bit rougher, especially after Klinsmann started introducing his substitutes. Honduras did a better job clogging passing lanes, forcing turnovers and putting the Americans under a bit more pressure. Jones committed a yellow card foul that halted a Honduran counter in the 60th minute and then was one of several players beaten to a free kick on Los Catrachos’ equalizer. Two attackers ran free toward the U.S. net and Jones was caught in the middle. The ball went just over his head and was nodded home by Maynor Figueroa.
“Free kicks, corner kicks, it’s always an option that something could happen, as it did then,” Klinsmann said. “[But] I think we saw a couple of good elements there.”
Besler, who left the match in the 64th minute with what appeared to be a hurt hamstring, was complimentary as well.
“I enjoyed it. Jermaine’s a fun player to play with. He’s active. He’s the type of guy that, he can read the game. Soccer is soccer. So it doesn’t matter what position you put him in,” Besler said. “I think you saw in the game that his instinct was to take the ball forward a little bit more into space, but I think he held off when he needed to. Obviously, he covered well tonight. Over on that said he made a couple runs. It was fun. It went well.”
Said U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando, “He’s kind of a force back there. Somebody intimidating and somebody with the style that Jurgen plays, he wants every ball played out of the back, on the ground. Jermaine is midfielder and has the size and the ability to be back there and I thought he did quite well.”
And that means it’s a wrinkle that very well could be seen again. Klinsmann’s faith in Jones is unwavering. He stuck with the Frankfurt-born son of an American serviceman through the uneven first couple years of his U.S. national team career, when questions about Jones’ commitment and discipline frequently overshadowed his play. That faith was rewarded amply in Brazil and Jones’ emerging desire to be a team spokesman and leader is something Klinsmann wants to encourage, even as the player ages. The coach said Monday that Jones’ ability to thrive for so many years in the German Bundesliga and at the Champions League level is that he “never settles for yourself, never gets too satisfied.” Klinsmann thinks these qualities will help set an example for younger players now coming through.
“The thinking behind it is his leadership,” Klinsmann said Tuesday night when asked about Jones' switch to center back. “Being loud and vocal and [hitting] clean passes as well, which is one of his trademarks, so I think it went well. I think he did a good job.”
Jones played the position occasionally at Schalke 04 and then during his spring 2014 stint at Turkey’s Beşiktaş. He now plays in midfield for the New England Revolution, but said the shift was no big deal. Other U.S. players, like Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu, have done both. Famous Germans such as Lothar Matthäus and Matthias Sammer, Klinsmann's former Mannschaft teammates, have as well.
“It’s a position where I feel comfortable and it’s not a big problem … This position is one of the easiest positions on the field. You have experience and I think you can read the game a little bit and you’re physical – I have no problem to battle games. That position, I think, it’s easier to play than to play a No. 6 [defensive midfielder],” Jones said.
Considering the increased competition, the size of the player pool, the development of several younger players and myriad other factors, it’s impossible to know what the U.S. will look like in four years, or even when World Cup qualifying kicks off in 2016. Klinsmann must balance short-term results with long-term growth. There are several up-and-coming midfielders, most notably Mix Diskerud, breaking through. Playing Jones in back gave Klinsmann the opportunity to pair Diskerud and Michael Bradley in the middle and may open up further options in the months ahead.
“As a coach, you’re trying to always figure out how to get your best guys on the field,” Bradley said. “On certain days, it can mean that guys are asked to do something different slightly, and still it comes back to the intelligence of the player and the drive and the motivation to want to do that.”
Jones, who seems more American with each passing game, is motivated to continue his U.S. career.
“I always have fun when I play with the national team. It’s something, I think, it makes you proud to play for your country,” he said. “I’m 32, close to 33. But I don’t feel that age. The young kids, they keep me still running. So we will see what happens.”
Klinsmann offered a clue.
“We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a long term thought to it,” the manager said. “Midfielders with the way they play and their vision and their sense for it, they can easily move one step back and play a center back role. It takes a little bit of time. It [takes] some good understanding with the other center back, with the outside backs, but Jermaine played that before … and I wasn’t worried at all about that. It’s a thought, seeing he is 32, if he’s now the box-to-box player for the next four years on turf fields [at the Revolution’s Gillette Stadium], I don’t know. I doubt it a little bit. So [center back] might be a better fit over the longer stretch of time and it was good for us to test that out.”